Rising early, we broke camp and made our way to El Malpais Information Center where we were pleasantly surprised to run into Gayle, our informative ranger from yesterday. She was preparing to take a small group out exploring the area including some spelunking (which we confirmed was exploring caves, you dirty minds you). She thought we were there to join them but we had to pass as it was going to be an all day event and we had already planned to spend the morning in El Malpais (“badlands” in English) and then head to Albuquerque. She introduced us to another ranger, Maryann, who was so excited about telling us about the area and its various hiking trails that it was a joy just to listen to her. She advised us to start at El Calderon Area as there were some great trails that wouldn’t take too much time yet offered some amazing views of the area. El Calderon is the result of an ancient volcano so the area contains numerous lava tubes and caves most of which require spelunking experience and a knowledgeable guide. Maryann directed us to Junction Cave which is an easy one to explore as you can see light at either end. She advised to ensure we headed to the right as exploring to the left would leave us in total darkness. Maryann was very detailed about explaining the trails and soon we were on our way.
Arriving at El Calderon, there was no one in the parking area, a good sign for some peaceful exploring. Junction Cave was close by so we headed down the path, climbed down the rocks and went spelunking, well at least the lazy man’s version. It was fun to be walking in the lava tube watching our footing on the rocks as there was no clear trail. Maryann had advised us to be sure to start on the left side of the cave as it was an easier descent and that they had seen the result (broken legs and ankles) of people starting on the right side as it had appeared to them to be easier.
Making our way through Junction Cave unscathed, we continued down the trail to Double Sinks and on to the Bat Cave (no sign of Christian Bale must be saving someone, somewhere). The Bat Cave is closed for human exploration (isn’t it always) and there are warnings not to mess with the bat guano (as if! guano is poop if you didn’t know) as it contains an element dangerous to humans (uh, yeah).
The trail continued to the Lava Trench and up to El Calderon Cinder Cone. Cinders are pea-sized rocks that are formed when lava hardens as it is shot from the volcano and exposed to air. The ground around the cone is made up of two different colored cinders, black and red. The red cinders contain higher amounts of iron so it is believed that the different cinders are the result of two different volcanic explosions. These cinders provide a good place for seeds to take and root and also help to retain water deep below the surface. There are some plants in El Morro that only grow on cinders.
We made our way back to the parking area just in time to see a family heading down Junction Cave of course on the wrong side. Oh well, hope they didn’t ruin their vacation. From here, we drove on Hwy 53 around El Malpais National Conservation Area up to Grants located off the I-40. Our first impression of Grants was that it was a smaller version of Gallup, more like a trot if you will. We drove down Route 66 through Grants and took a few snaps of some dilapidated landmarks.
From Grants, we stopped at the Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center which had a well-designed, modern display of the national and state parks. It also had a great view of El Malpais Area. From the I-40, we hopped on Hwy 117 to explore the eastern side of the monument. Our first stop was the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook which offered amazing views high above the lava flows. Continuing south to La Ventana Natural Arch, the drive was absolutely stunning. Frank thought it was more beautiful than the red cliffs of Sedona; we both agreed we liked the lack of cars everywhere, unlike Sedona. The views at the arch were stunning and affording a lot of great photo ops, some with LKC of course.
Our next destination was Albuquerque, so we headed back to the I-40 for the hour and a half drive.